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Henry V

Michael Grandage's final production in his West End season, Henry V starring Jude Law in the title role, opened at the Noel Coward Theatre last night (3 December 2013)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Jude Law as Henry V
© Johan Persson

A few years back the late Alan Clark, the Conservative minister, got into hot water for saying the unspeakable, praising football hooligans and pointing out that their inclination to fight was the sort of spirit that led to the victory at Agincourt.

It's this sentiment that pervades every core of Michael Grandage's fast-paced production. There is little subtlety but this is a fine rendering of this complex play. Christopher Oram's sparsely furnished set, an almost-literal "wooden O", ensures that all attention is on the play.

At the heart, of course, is the king himself. Jude Law's Henry is a man of action, and a man of anger. There is no softness here and there's little sense of levity: the long Salic Law exposition is delivered straight, without any of the regular humour and the tennis ball scene sets off a tirade that shows that this Henry has little respect for any diplomatic convention or pleasantries but is full of fight from the outset – a warlike Harry indeed.

But then, nor is there any sense of nobility from his army. Grandage portrays them as a feral bunch, a group of desperadoes that are barely controlled by the king. There's little doubt as to what would happen to the citizens of Harfleur, if they'd been let loose – there's nothing gloriously patriotic about this feral bunch.

But that's to be expected from a production where war is presented as something that's not only inevitable but to be positively welcomed. There's an inner fire in Law that ensures he always commands attention. There are only two occasions where this mask of steely determination slips: in his prayer to pardon his father's usurping of the crown, and in his wooing of Katherine – and even here his rough and ready approach is far removed from courtly diplomacy.

There are plenty of light touches, not from the king but from Ron Cook's preening Pistol, relishing equally easy money and Matt Ryan's ebullient Fluellen. Jessie Buckley and Noma Dumezweni make for a fine Katherine and Alice.

There's been a temptation of late to look at Henry V with 21st century eyes and present the grim reality of war. Grandage's production does no such thing and Law's fierce, uncomplicated, martial Henry is the heartbeat of an excellently clear-sighted production.